Sound and vision blog

3 posts from April 2015

13 April 2015

British wildlife recordings on the move

Over the last 2 1/2 years, we have been working alongside 25 European partners on a project that aims to enable and promote greater re-use of digitised cultural heritage resources. With its eyes focused firmly on the creative industries, Europeana Creative has facilitated the unlocking of previously restricted content and, through a series of pilots, produced apps and websites that demonstrate ways in which this material could potentially be used by the creative sector. Themed challenges were also issued to external developers, designers, artists and entrepreneurs to create viable online applications that in some way re-used cultural heritage content available through the Europeana platform. 

At the start of the project we were charged with providing access to 3000 wildlife, environmental and urban sound recordings under defined Creative Commons licenses. The first stage was to upload content to Europeana but, never ones to rest on our laurels, we also decided to provide access to as many sounds as possible through one of the most well-known audio platforms out there - SoundCloud.

The first recordings to begin the journey over to Soundcloud focus on the sounds of Britain's wildlife. Orginally presented on our website British Library Sounds, recordings featured in British Wildlife Recordings were, for most listeners, only available in a streaming capacity. Downloading was restricted to students at registered UK HE & FE institutions, thereby significantly limiting the potential for creative re-use beyond the academic sector. Now, under the auspices of Europeana Creative, these recordings are being migrated to Soundcloud and made available under CC-BY licenses. Here are just a few of the sounds that you can now download and re-use, edit however you wish:

More recordings will be added over the coming weeks so do keep an eye on the British Wildlife Recordings playlist - and if you happen to re-use some of these sounds in interesting and creative ways, do get in touch as we'd love to know!

In addition to releasing a range of sound recordings, more that 90,000 images have also been added to Europeana. Around 60,000 of these have been taken from a larger set of over 1 million public domain images released by the British Library onto Flickr Commons at the end of 2013. The rest have been drawn from the Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, again under the public domain mark, but with some recommendations on access & re-use. Together, these digitised resources provide, what we hope will be, ample material for individuals working within the creative industries to re-use and draw inspiration from in a multitude of different ways.


Image taken from page 200 of 'British Ornithology; being the history, with a coloured representation of every known species of British birds'


Image taken from page 26 of 'Bonnie Bairns. Illustrated by H. Jackson. Edited by Edric Vredenburg. Verses by E. M. Chettle, etc'


Image taken from page 215 of 'Siberia in Asia: a visit to the valley of the Yenesay in East Siberia. With description of the natural history, migration of birds, etc. ... With map, etc'

Illuminated manuscript

Kings9 f. 66v: Annunciation (Miniature of the Annunciation to Mary by the Archangel Gabriel. Mary sits with a book; the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove. In the margin is a note from Anne Boleyn to Henry VIII, reading 'Be daly prove you shall me fynde / To be to you bothe lovynge and kynde.') 

08 April 2015

Probably not on Spotify: Balsam Flex cassettes

As a sound archivist charged with developing the spoken-word collections, I keep at the back of my mind a list of commercially issued records and tapes that for one reason or another were not added to the British Library's collection at the time of publication

Even key historical items such as the rare 'Allen Ginsberg Reading at Better Books' LP, for example, issued in an edition of just 100 copies in 1965, were often missed by our collectors first time round (though we have a copy now).

A decade or two on, the various productions of the obscure cassette label Balsam Flex also failed to register on our faulty radar, with only one or two of the dozens of published titles making it into the Library's collection.

Balsam flex cassettes

I am therefore pleased to report that poet Allen Fisher has generously donated to the British Library his personal treasure trove of 35 Balsam Flex cassettes - almost all of which have hitherto proved impossible to track down - with the promise of more to come if he can find them.

The Balsam Flex label was run by artist E. E. Vonna-Michell from an address in South West London, and was active in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The artists featured were drawn largely from the UK's experimental poetry, performance and sound art scenes, and along with Allen Fisher and Vonna-Michell himself included Henri Chopin, Bob Cobbing, Peter Finch, Lawrence Upton, cris cheek, Ulli McCarthy (aka Ulli Freer) and the less familiar names Alice Blommer, Tumla Nitnelav and Yurine Burns.

Information on the label being scarce I am grateful to Dr Will Montgomery of Royal Holloway, University of London, for allowing me to see a draft of his article 'Balsam Flex: Cassette Culture and Poetry', which is to be published by Palgrave Macmilllan as part of the book Modernist Legacies: Trends and Faultlines in British Poetry Today.

The article provides an indispensable overview of Vonna-Michell and the artists he worked with (many of whom had roots in Bob Cobbing's Writers Forum group) and a wealth of contextual references to contemporaneous cassette labels and poetry journals.

Montgomery writes that Vonna-Michell once 'sent a length of rusty exhaust pipe placed cactus-like in a plant-pot to the British Library for cataloguing as a book'.

Dismayingly, it seems the Library failed to rise to the challenge, as I could not find this item in the catalogue.

Allen Fisher's collection of Balsam Flex cassettes will eventually be catalogued and digitized and made available for listening on request in the Reading Rooms. The service is free but you will need a Reader Pass and you may need to book an appointment.

In the meantime, Allen has kindly given permission for the Library to post an excerpt from his piece The Art of Flight, recorded by Chris Carter at the COUM/THROBBING GRISTLE STUDIOS in 1976, and originally issued on cassette by Balsam Flex.

This is section eight, titled: 

        End of middle and last section of

              THE ART OF FLIGHT VI

        three into four voices      

              phase shifted

Listen to an excerpt from The Art of Flight

With thanks to Allen Fisher and Will Montgomery.

02 April 2015

Help us build the Directory of UK Sound Collections


On January the 12th the British Library launched the Save our Sounds programme.

Since then we have been building a Directory of UK Sound Collections by gathering information from sound collection holders across the country about the condition, formats, extent, uniqueness and subject matter of their collections.

This valuable information will allow us to assess the state of the nation's recorded heritage and the risks it faces.

Project deadline extension

Since the last Directory update the response has been fantastic and, to date, we have received information on 925 individual collections totalling 838,473 individual items.

Due to the excellent response we are happy to announce that the deadline for submission of collection details has been extended to May 31st.

Taking part

If you have a sound collection, no matter how big or small, we would love to include it in our survey so please get in touch.

All informaton about how to submit collection information can be found on the Directory project page or you can email us on

Promotion is vital to the success of the project so please help us to spread the word to any friends, relatives or colleagues you feel may be in possesion of a sound archive or collection.

You can follow the British Library Sound Archive on Twitter via @soundarchive and the project hashtag is #SaveOurSounds.

We know that there are many more collections out there and we would love to hear about them!

What we have discovered so far

The responses already received have provided great insight into the types of collection holders in the UK, the breadth of the subjects that their collections cover, the formats they are held on and what condition the collections are in. With this information, we can begin to assess the state of the nation’s sound collections and the risks they face.

Items reported, by format.

The above graph demonstrates the diversity of formats we have received information on ranging from wax phonograph cylinders and shellac discs to MiniDiscs and DATs. We will publish advice on the risks to and care of these different formats in a later blog post.

Collection highlights

We have received information on a huge range of subjects demonstrating the great wealth and diversity of the UK's sound collections including the following collections of interest:

Classical and Experimental Music

  • Daphne Oram Archive: over 500 recordings of works by the pioneering British composer and electronic musician Daphne Oram (1925 - 2003), creator of the "Oramics" system, a technique used to create electronic sounds.
  • Delia Derbyshire Archive: featuring over 267 tapes covering Derbyshire's time as a composer at the BBC's groundbreaking Radiophonic Workshop between 1962 and 1973.
  • Centre for Russian Music Archive: an archive of over 500 recordings including notable material donated by the Glinka State Museum for Musical Culture in Moscow.

World and Traditional Music

  • Kenneth A. Gourlay Archive: material relating to Gourlay's ethnomusicological research on the musical cultures of Uganda, Nigeria and Papua New Guinea.
  • Bristol Record Office St Paul's Archive: recordings of performances spanning the history of the St. Paul’s carnival.
  • Essex Record Office Traditional Music Archive: Over 1000 recordings of traditional and folk music played by Essex musicians or performed at Essex venues.

Drama and Literature

  • Lily Greenham Collection: original tapes belonging to poet and experimental sound artist Lily Greenham (1924-2001).
  • Bunnet-Muir Musical Theatre Trust Archive: over 11,000 audio recordings on cylinder, 78, 45 and 33 rpm records, cassettes, reel to reel, CD & piano rolls.
  • The Rambert Archive: over 800 recordings created by the Rambert Dance Company through the process of the work the company produce.
Collection Subjects
Collection Subjects

Language and Dialect

  • University of Cambridge Library Collections: including the Linguistic Survey of India collection.

Popular Music and Jazz

  • Women's Revolutions Per Minute (WRPM) Archive: WRPM was set up in 1977 as part of the Women's Art Collective in London promoting festivals of music by women as part of the Women's Liberation Movement. 
  • Dave Collett Blues Collection: recordings of the pianist for Acker Bilk band.


  • BBC Essex Archive: Over 7,000 BBC Essex radio recordings including interviews, documentaries, outside broadcasts, news, sport, vox pops and phone-ins.
  • George William Target Collection: Sound recordings of George William Target (1924-2005), writer and religious commentator. Includes a recording of Desert Island Discs and Target's contribution to the Today programme's feature 'Thought for Today'.
Heat Map
Heatmap showing collection  locations.

Speeches and events

  • Cumbria Local History Archive: speeches made during the 1951 General Election campaign by Walter Monslow, Clement Atlee; Speeches made at CND meetings and rallies in Barrow-in-Furness 1984-1985 including Bruce Kent, Captain James Bush (USA), Joan Ruddock, Michael Foot MP, Japanese speakers from Hiroshima.


  • Ronald Sturt & Talking Newspapers for the Blind: recordings relating to Ronald Sturt's life and involvement with Talking Newspapers for the Blind, 1970-2002.

Oral History

  • Manchester Jewish Museum Archive: 716 recordings from the early 1970s onwards containing interviews with first, second and third generation Jewish immigrants and providing unique anecdotal evidence of the mass migration of Eastern European Jews in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
  • Ambleside Oral History Archive: An ongoing oral history project which began in 1978 and has recorded the lives and times of over 450 people born in the Lake District from 1877 onwards.

Natural Sounds

  • British Trust for Ornithology Archive: over 780 recordings of ornithological interest including a copy of a set of BBC recordings made in the early 1960s.
  • RIDGEWAYsounds: field recordings and mixed soundscapes made by participants of Seasonal Sound Walks and Sounds of the Neolithic on the South Dorset Ridgeway.

The British Library's Directory of UK Sound Collections is one of the first steps in our Save our Sounds programme; one of the key strands of Living Knowledge, the British Library's new vision and purpose for its future.